Gerry M Mayfield
Dunmore Piory, England. FLITCH DAY. Beginning in 15th century, the monks offered a "flitch" of bacon as prize for any married couple who could prove to a jury of bachelors and maidens that they had lived together in harmony and fidelity for the past year. Very few took home the bacon.
The modern Flitch Ceremony is normally held every four years and part of a brief history of the custom which appeared in the Illustrated London News in July 1855 part of which is reproduced below:
We do swear by custom of confession
When this oath was taken by each couple, it was the duty of the officer who administered it to reply:
Of your own accord you do freely swear,
A whole flitch of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave;
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known
Though the pleasure be ours, the bacon's your own."
The 'flitch of bacon at Dunmow' is one of those numerous old local customs of which the origin seems to have been entirely forgotten. All we really know is, that at an early period the custom existed in the priory of Little Dunmow of delivering the flitch or a gammon of bacon to any couple who claimed it, and could swear a year and a day after their marriage that during that time they had never once offended each other in deed or word, or ever wished themselves unmarried again.
It was probably a custom attached to the tenure of the Manor, as it was continued after the priory was dissolved. As early as the middle of the fourteenth century, the poem of "Piers Ploughman", who lived on the borders of Wales, mentions the custom in a manner that implies a general knowledge of it among his readers, and less than half a century later, Chaucer puts an allusion to it in the mouth of his Wife of Bath, implying that it was then a matter of common notoriety in the West of England.
In 1467 Stephen Samuel and his wife of Little Easton, in Essex, received a gammon of bacon; and a gammon was similarly given, in 1510, to Thomas Fuller of Coggeshall. According to the old ceremonial at Dunmow, the party claiming the bacon - who was styled the pilgrim - was to take the oath in rhyme kneeling on one tow sharp stones in the churchyard, the convent attending and using a variety of ceremonies.
Then the pilgrim was taken on men's shoulders, and carried, first about the priory church and yard, and afterwards through the village, attended by monks of the convent. The bacon was borne in triumph before them. This ceremonial was continued with little alteration after the dissolution of the monastery, but the adjudication then took place in the court baron of the Lord of the Manor.
A case occurred in 1701, when two couples obtained each a gammon of bacon. The first claimants on this occasion were William Parsley, butcher of Much Easton in Essex and his wife, and the second, John Reynolds, steward to Sir Charles Barrington, of Hatfield Broad Oak, and his wife. They took the usual oath, kneeling on two stones in the churchyard; but the jury consisted only of five maidens, without any of the other sex, and four of the maidens appear by their names to have been sisters. In 1751 the bacon was claimed by Thomas Shakeshaft, weaver of Weathersfield. The claimants had been married seven years, and no objection having been found to their claim, they went through the usual ceremonies and received a gammon of bacon. This case appears to have made great noise in the country, and no less than five thousand persons are said to have been present - the road being literally blocked up by the various vehicles from the town of Great Dunmow to the Priory. It is said that on this occasion the successful candidates realized a large sum of money by selling slices of bacon to those who had come to witness the ceremony.
From this time the custom appears to have become obsolete; even the stones on which the claimants knelt in taking the oath were carried away; and the old chair of carved oak in which the successful couple were borne alone remains, preserved in the priory church. In 1851, just a century after the last gift of the bacon at the Manorial Court, a claim was made by Mr and Mrs Hurrell, owners and occupiers of a farm at Felsted, adjoining Little Dunmow, but the Lord of the Manor refused to revive the custom. This refusal caused a great deal of discontent among the inhabitants of the parish, which was only appeased by an intimation that if the claimants would drive over to Easton park on the 16th of July, when a rural fete was to take place there, they would receive a gammon of bacon on going through the old ceremonial.
On the day appointed a multitude of people assembled before the Town Hall in Great Dunmow, with a brass band, and when the two claimants appeared, they were escorted in great triumph to the park, with banners and flags, and the gammon of bacon was carried in triumph before them. About three thousand persons are said to have been collected in the park to witness the ceremony, which appears to have consisted only in taking the old oath and receiving the bacon, without any presiding jury or trial. The opposition of the Lord of the Manor to a revival of the old custom in Little Dunmow has continued to the present time, although there has been a strong popular feeling all along of a contrary kind; and it is really this popular feeling, which gave rise to the proceedings on Thursday 19th July 1855 (the revival of the custom).